In 2013 my first mate, Louise, and I took our 50-year-old, teak-hulled motoryacht 1,200 miles up the Amazon River. Our trawler, Passagemaker (shown above), should be well known to readers as the subject of Robert Beede’s famous book, Voyaging Under Power. What started out as a quick peek at the world’s largest river turned into an amazing seven-month journey. It was truly the adventure of a lifetime.
Our original plan was to spend three years circumnavigating South America. Starting with Trinidad in the West Indies, we were then to head southeast, stopping at the Orinoco River delta and then on to the Essequibo River in Guyana and Devil’s Island in French Guyana.
Once a penal colony made famous by former inmate and fugitive Henri Charrière’s 1969 novel, Papillon, Devil’s Island is a beautiful and intriguing monument to the past. Although the island is now mostly closed to tourism, French Guyana serves an important modern-day purpose: Arianespace uses the mainland area as the launching pad for 80 percent of the world’s satellites.
Southeast from Devil’s Island sits the mouth of the Amazon River. Louise and I were just going to “pop up” the river a way as we headed south. Little did we know that our supposed side excursion would become the most fascinating seven months of our cruising lives.
INTO THE MOUTH
The first thing you need to understand is the sheer size of the Amazon River. It is unlike any other river on earth. The estuary at its widest point is the same distance as London to Brussels, about 150 miles. That’s right, the south of England, the English Channel, and all of Belgium up to Brussels would fit into the mouth of this amazing river.
Even 30 miles away from the river’s entrance, the tide was ebbing toward us at four knots, reducing our speed to barely a knot over ground. We dropped two 80-pound anchors, each with 200 feet of half-inch chain, and still dragged nearly a mile before the tide turned. Riding the flood tide, we surfed in and nearly passed the first customs office.
Entering the Amazon River, one also needs to come to terms with the seasonal changes in its level, which can be up to 30 feet in places and cause 5-knot currents. We found that it was always best to anchor and catch our breath for a day or two before venturing ashore. The last thing you need is your floating home disappearing while you check in with the friendly—if rarely punctual—immigration and customs officials. A tip for customs: Make sure to allow a day for this exercise as you will sit and wait in air-conditioned cubicles prior to your interview.
Bear in mind that these Brazilian customs officials don’t see too many cruisers, so be sure you know ahead of time what visit reciprocity your country has with Brazil. In some cases, you may receive a six-month visa, and for others, it means only one month. Even if they only grant you one month, the experience will still be worth it. The best wildlife on television documentaries lives within the first few hundred miles of entering the river. Anchor anywhere and you will be treated to flocks of macaws and toucans passing overhead, as well as troupes of monkeys sitting in the riverside trees studying you while you enjoy your evening sundowner.
If you enter the Amazon during the first half of the year, the river will be rising as snow melts in the Andes some 2,000 miles away and gradually wends its way to the Atlantic.
Make sure you have kayaks so you can quietly paddle over the tops of submerged trees and watch incredible birds feasting on all of the insects seeking higher ground. The farther up the river you travel the less you will feel tidal effects. When you reach about 600 miles upstream, at the town of Obidos, the tide no longer affects the river’s flow.
During our stay in the early months of the year, the current in the center of the river typically ran around 5 knots. We learned from the local river traffic that hugging the banks, often no more than 20 feet from the trees, was where the counter current helped our speed by 1 or 2 knots.
The first thing that amazed us was the incredible volume and diversity of river traffic. Not just local fishermen in their workboats, but oceangoing Fort Lauderdale-sized cruise ships, and container ships so large they would barely fit through the Panama Canal. All of them were headed to the duty-free city of Manaus some 800 miles up the river where you will also find the world’s largest motorcycle factory. In Manaus, Honda’s 10,000-strong workforce produces more than 3,000 motorbikes a day, and virtually all of those produced are sold in South America. Next to the Honda factory is a giant refinery handling the vast deposits of oil from the region.
Of course, Manaus is most famous for its beautiful opera house and the fabled “Meeting of The Waters,” where the nearly black water of the aptly named Rio Negro flows alongside the light brown water of the Rio Solimões for many miles before they finally merge into one. And you can pilot your motoryacht right along that line.
The second biggest surprise was the incredible level of development along the banks of the river. Not that you can see it, because of a 30-foot seasonal change in water level, most towns are built behind small forests of trees and are accessible only via tight-quarters navigation. To put the region’s development into perspective, we spent seven months travelling 1,200 miles up the Amazon and back, and we had only five days without five-bar cellular reception.
The one thing you never have to worry about on your trek up through the jungle is fuel. Roughly every 50 miles there are fuel barges anchored out to support river traffic. Simply pull in like you would at any gas station, pump fuel into your tanks, and swipe your credit card.
Because private yachts are virtually never seen on the Amazon you will be well advised to carry your own stock of spare parts for your boat. Of course nearly anything can be ordered and shipped nowadays, delivered into almost any port along the river, but you will be hit with horrendous customs duties well in excess of the base rate of 100 percent and it will probably take days to clear the paperwork. Part of your spares kit should include plenty of filters, as the quality of diesel and other fuel is dubious.
The best plan is to have several tanks on board and after filling one tank, pump it through Baja filters to a second tank and then back again. We also recommend carrying a good stock of biocide, as the heat encourages plenty of nasties to grow in your fuel tanks.
Another challenge facing you is navigation. The river is so vast that you can easily and quickly get lost. There is a shortage of navigational charts and any plan you may have to follow commercial traffic will soon be thwarted. It is unlikely you will have a vessel that can maintain the 20-knot pace of these ships. We worked around the chart shortage by taking photographs of paper charts and then uploading them to Sea Clear to convert them into our GPS-linked laptop navigation system. This inexpensive solution worked well.
ATTITUDE OF THE AMAZONIANS
Many of our friends worried about our safety while we were on the river, referring to the fate of Peter Blake who was fatally shot in 2001. However, we felt safer cruising the Amazon River than we ever did in the Caribbean. In the entire seven months only two people came alongside Passagemaker. The first was a harbormaster requesting that we wear life jackets when we use our dinghy, and the second was a Brazilian school teacher who had worked abroad and wanted his children to see a yacht.
Our experience was that the people were very reserved and even though many of them had never seen a yacht, they never came and hung over the side, gawping at us as happens in so many other parts of the world. When we approached them for assistance they couldn’t do enough to help us and we were never asked for money or food.
To our astonishment, as we were enjoying the most wonderful trip of our cruising career, we only saw one other foreign yacht in our seven months on the river.
Truly, the Amazon River is the last great and unknown adventure for cruisers. We certainly plan to return, and this time we will make it all the way to Peru and back.
Peter & Louise have written a monthly newsletter, complete with waypoints covering their adventure on the Amazon whichyou can download from their website,www.passagemaker.org, and clicking on Voyages. The author, Peter Quentrall-Thomas (firstname.lastname@example.org), was last seen regaling guests with sailing yarns at his Amazon Lodge in Trinidad. To learn more or to book a stay, visit:www.amazonlodgetrinidad.com